iss056e025331 (6/20/2018) – Deployment of the NanoRacks-Remove Debris Satellite from the International Space Station (ISS) using the NanoRacks Kaber MicroSat Deployer. NanoRacks-Remove Debris aims to demonstrate key technologies for Active Debris Removal to reduce the risks presented by space debris

RemoveDEBRIS Satellite Launch

iss056e025331 (6/20/2018) – Deployment of the NanoRacks-Remove Debris Satellite from the International Space Station (ISS) using the NanoRacks Kaber MicroSat Deployer. NanoRacks-Remove Debris aims to demonstrate key technologies for Active Debris Removal to reduce the risks presented by space debris

Photo by: Drew Feustel

Drew Feustel

Space Debris Reaches Critical Levels Threatening Future Science

By: Robin Fearon

Space junk is a growing threat to mankind’s future. Old rocket parts, failed satellites, and pieces from previous space missions form a cloud of 750,000 pieces of debris circling the Earth at high speed. Scientists say an urgent clean-up is needed to prevent an environmental crisis in space.

July 19, 2022

NASA calculates more than 27,000 pieces of debris are tracked by the Department of Defense, but most are too small for sensors to be effective. Even tiny pieces like metal bolts or microscopic paint flakes are a hazard to satellites and space missions because they orbit the planet at speeds up to 17,500 miles per hour.

The International Space Station (ISS) and much of the space industry operate in low Earth orbit at altitudes between 150km (90 miles) and 2,000km (1,200 miles). Collisions are an ever-present danger. Early on Monday 15 November 2021, the ISS crew was told to prepare escape capsules as fragments from a destroyed satellite were racing toward the station.

International Space Station (ISS)

International Space Station (ISS)

It was not the first time space station crew were warned about space debris. But it was a disturbing event, triggered by the Russian military destroying one of its own satellites with a missile. Nations criticized Russia for endangering the ISS and the US called for a ban on anti-satellite missile tests.

More than 1,500 fragments were created when Russia’s Cosmos 1408 disintegrated, joining almost 10,000 metric tons of objects now orbiting the planet. Given the rapid growth in man-made objects, scientists have urgently called for low Earth orbit to be treated as another of Earth’s precious ecosystems.

Space junk threatens working satellites that provide transport, communications, and environmental monitoring on Earth. But plans to launch tens if not hundreds of thousands of satellites in mega-constellations to provide broadband and other services, like SpaceX Starlink, make space even more congested and collisions more likely.

More satellites are being launched than ever before as smaller satellites, CubeSats and nanosats, make space technology more affordable. But the European Space Agency (ESA) says not enough is removed from orbit once they stop working, behavior it says is unsustainable.

Launches were up by 44 percent in 2021 compared to the previous year. Almost $280 billion was generated in the commercial satellite business, according to the Satellite Industry Association. And the rapid acceleration will cause more space debris without new rules to keep pollution down.

Astronomers have also noticed that Starlink satellites obscure vital efforts to track asteroids that might collide with Earth. Accounting for man-made objects is becoming increasingly difficult, but if we don’t act soon on space junk it could trap us on Earth say, experts.

Kessler Syndrome is an effect where space collisions and debris become so numerous that launches become impossible. Clean-up efforts need to match launch activity, but so far progress has been slow. Dedicated satellites and CubeSats are being built to gather debris, and NASA is looking at firing focused pulses of atmospheric gas to destroy objects.

Removal is gearing up so space agencies and companies need to build in post-mission disposal to any launch, says the ESA. The United Nations now has guidelines on space junk and making the space industry more sustainable in the long term, including ensuring old satellites are sent into higher ‘graveyard’ orbits or nudged downwards to burn up on re-entry.

Next Up

A Guide to Defending the Earth

Let’s say one day astronomers announce that our worst nightmare has come true: a large object is headed towards the Earth with a significant chance of impact. What do we do?

6 Months in Space Permanently Ages Bones by 10 Years

Astronauts on long-term space missions can experience bone loss equivalent to two decades of aging. New research suggests more weight-bearing exercises in space could help offset that decline.

South Korea Joins Space Race by Sending its First Spacecraft to the Moon

South Korea is launching its first lunar probe to the moon on August 4th. The Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO) or Danuri, developed by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) is being launched to study moon carters, magnetic fields, and surface weathering.

How Exoplanets Became the Next Big Thing in Astronomy

To date, we know of over 5,000 planets outside the solar system. And astronomers suspect that there may be *checks notes* around a trillion more in our galaxy alone. The search for exoplanets is one of the hottest topics in astronomy, with expensive telescopes and giant collaborations all searching for the holy grail of the 21st century: an Earth 2.0, a habitable world like our own.

How Astronomers Use a Trick of Gravity to See the Most Distant Objects in the Universe

Let’s say you’re an astronomer (work with me here) and you want to take a picture of something incredibly, deeply far away. You know, the typical business of astronomy.

A Guide to this August’s Best Astronomy Attractions

Learn more about the exciting things happening in the night sky this month! From the rings of Saturn to the most popular meteor shower of the year, August 2022 has us stargazing all month.

Why Astronomers Care About Super-Old Galaxies?

A long time ago, our universe was dark.It was just 380,000 years after the big bang. Up until that age, our entire observable cosmos was less than a millionth of its present size. All the material in the universe was compressed into that tiny volume, forcing it to heat up and become a plasma. But as the universe expanded and cooled, eventually the plasma changed into a neutral gas as the first atoms formed.

What We’ve Already Learned From James Webb? (Hint: it’s a lot)

That was worth the wait. Just a quick handful of months since its historic launch on Christmas Day, the James Webb Space Telescope has flown to its observing position, unfolded its delicate instruments and ultra-sized mirror, and run through a suite of checks and alignments and calibrations. The team at NASA behind the telescopes released their first batch of images from the science runs, and besides being gorgeous, they're powerful.

Here Comes Artemis I (Rescheduled, again)

NASA's long-awaited Artemis 1 uncrewed moon mission and next generation of spacecraft has been delayed for a second time. The rocket was initially scheduled to launch on Aug. 29, 2022, at 8:33 AM ET, but was delayed due to an issue with the engine bleed. Watch Space Launch Live: Artemis-1 on Science Channel to see the moment of liftoff. (Launch Date Pending) (Updated Sept 7, 11:00AM)

The James Webb Space Telescope Launches!

Finally! It was initially proposed way back in 1998 and named the James Webb Space Telescope in 2002. After a decade of delays and over 10 billion dollars past its original budget, NASA’s next great observatory finally launched from the European Space Agency’s Guiana Space Centre in South America.

Related To: